Every day, the Ottawa Senators seem to inch closer to being the team they want to become.
Injured winger Drake Batherson has returned to the lineup, while goalie prospect Mads Sogaard has been called up and could make his NHL debut this week.
And now the big daddy of them all — defenceman Jake Sanderson has signed a three-year, entry level contract and is expected to play with the Senators this season, once he has fully recovered from hand surgery.
For a franchise that will be missing the playoffs this spring for a fifth consecutive year, these developments among the young core loom large. Sanderson, 19, picked fifth overall by Ottawa in 2020, is expected to have an impact on the Senators blueline immediately.
An all-around talent whose work ethic is off the charts, Sanderson was a front-runner in the race for the Hobey Baker Award until he suffered numerous setbacks this season, including illness, COVID-19 and multiple injuries.
It was a self-sacrificing move by Sanderson on March 5 against Colorado College that resulted in a serious wound to his hand. Diving into his own crease to prevent a goal, Sanderson was accidentally stepped on by Colorado’s Bryan Yoon and suffered a cut so significant it required surgery.
Sanderson is expected to fly to Ottawa over the next couple of days and have his hand examined by the Senators team doctors. Once he is cleared to skate, he can join a fellow injured ex-University of North Dakota player, centre Shane Pinto, in sessions overseen by the Senators.
General manager Pierre Dorion said in a statement he is confident Sanderson can dress for a game or two with Ottawa this season.
“While he still has progress to make in overcoming a current injury, we are hopeful of seeing him in our lineup before the end of the season,” Dorion said.
Sanderson’s weird season could have a sweet ending if he is able to play with the Senators.
He had his world junior tournament cut short as the event was canceled due to a COVID outbreak. His Olympic experience with Team USA was also short lived when he suffered an injury. And he played in just two of the UND Fighting Hawks’ final 14 games because of injury or illness.
In an interview Monday morning with Ottawa’s sports radio station TSN1200, UND head coach Brad Berry raved about Sanderson, as he did with Sportsnet.ca the last time we spoke.
“He is absolutely an every-day-er,” Berry told the station, when asked what will make Sanderson a success at the NHL level. “His humble approach to the game — he’s probably one of the best defencemen to ever come through North Dakota . . . but as far as knowing, ‘hey, I’ve got to keep working. I’ve got to keep my foot on the gas. I can get better at a few things.’
“He’s going into a situation where it’s older, faster, stronger but he’s all about it and I think he’s going to have success right away.”
Interestingly, Berry said that his parting message to Sanderson was to keep his “confidence and swagger with the puck.”
Known for his defensive play, Sanderson took over games this season with his smarts and creativity with the puck. Berry wants Sanderson to keep that flair in his game, even as he plays to his defensive strengths and the Senators system.
As for fellow defence prospect Tyler Kleven, Ottawa’s 44th overall pick in 2020, Berry said his recommendation is that Kleven stay at North Dakota for one more college season to develop, but that the ultimate decision will rest with the player, his family and the Senators.
OT thriller ends in shootout loss
It isn’t often that a head coach raves about a freewheeling game in which his team blew a three-goal lead, but that was the case Saturday as Senators head coach D.J. Smith took stock of Ottawa’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers.
Smith was talking less from a coaching standpoint and more from the point of view of some of the 17,201 in the stands at the Canadian Tire Centre, the largest crowd of the season.
Without Thomas Chabot, the Senators briefly ran a power play in overtime with four forwards on the ice. Smith also let sophomore centre Tim Stützle take a critical third-period faceoff against Claude Giroux.
Giroux won that draw, which led to Aleksander Barkov’s tying goal. Barkov later won the night with a shootout beauty, but Smith is letting his young players learn in key situations.
“If you’re a Senators fan, it’s pretty exciting to watch Timmy and the boys flying out there, with scoring chances up and down,” said Smith. “It’s a coach’s nightmare, you want a little less than that, but as a fan these are the stars of the future.
“I remember Barkov when he was this age and he was a good player, but he isn’t what he is today. That is going to be (Josh) Norris and Timmy and these guys. It’s exciting.”
We mostly talk about trades at the deadline. That is the name of the day, after all. Yet, for the Senators, their best move over the weekend before the March 21 trade deadline was signing goaltender Anton Forsberg to a three-year contract. Forsberg, a pending UFA, could have been moved, or he could have held out to sign elsewhere in the summer, but the 29-year-old opted for the stability and comfort of staying in Ottawa, where he has excelled since being picked up off waivers in March of 2021.
Forsberg, who has 15 of the Senators’ 23 wins this season, has excellent underlying numbers as well, with a 2.72 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. Against Florida, Forsberg stopped 46 of 49 shots in regulation and overtime and kept his team in the game despite the Panthers’ 49-22 shot advantage.
“He’s a great story of a guy that just stays with it,” Smith said of Forsberg. “He works harder than anybody and when he gets an opportunity, he’s ready. He can play 10 games in a month because he’s in that kind of shape.”
Once again, we have to ask the question. Where would the Senators be without Forsberg? The anointed starter Matt Murray, who has been ill and injured much of the season, has five wins in 20 starts and hasn’t played since March 5.
The case for Ryan Spooner
With Giroux in town with the Panthers, it was natural to fantasize about an off-season signing of Giroux, who lives in Ottawa with his wife, Ryanne Breton, and their two sons.
If Dorion could get Giroux, 34, a pending unrestricted free agent, signed to a contract this summer, it would represent a home run for the Senators and would fulfill a top-six need at forward.
If the Sens don’t land Giroux, and even if they do, there is another skilled forward in their own backyard who could fit a need.
Ryan Spooner, 30, of Kanata has re-ignited his career in the KHL the past few seasons. A former second-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2010 (45th overall), Spooner put up 49 points with the Bruins in 2015-16, before shuffling around to three other NHL teams and ending up in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk in 2019-20.
In two seasons with Dinamo and one with Yekaterinburg Automobilist, Spooner has been a consistent point producer. This season he led Yekaterinburg, a non-playoff team, in points with 34 in 45 games.
Last season, Spooner and former Senators forward Shane Prince were a one-two punch, combining for 88 points as Dynamo’s most productive players. (Prince had 17 points in 33 games with Yekaterinburg this season).
In 124 KHL games over three seasons, Spooner has 110 points, including 83 assists.
The stylish centre/winger has let it be known he would like to play in North America next season and is looking to sign an NHL contract.
Ottawa could be a good fit for Spooner as a pass-first player in an organization that has a lot of shooters at the centre position (Norris, Stützle, Pinto).
Depth at centre was a huge issue this year due to injuries to Norris, Pinto and Colin White. The team could be moving on from White’s contract this summer, all the more reason to think about Spooner as a skilled, depth addition at a reasonable cost.
It wouldn’t be Spooner’s first time wearing Senators colours. In U16 play with the Ottawa Senators’ first AAA team in 2007-08, Spooner was team captain and led the OEHL in points with 64 in 28 league games.